Henry James began writing The American while living in Paris in the winter of 1875-1876. The novel first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in twelve serialized, monthly installments from June 1876 to May 1877. In May 1877, as the serialization ended, a complete edition was published. There is evidence that James had not completed the novel when it began to appear in the magazine; he also began the novel with the expectation of publishing it in a different magazine, and it only found a home in The Atlantic at the last minute.
The American is James's third novel after Watch and Ward (1870) and Roderick Hudson (1875); however, since James was eventually displeased with the former work and made efforts to suppress it, The American is sometimes represented as his second work. The novel reflects James's preoccupation in this period with writing about Americans traveling abroad, a theme shared with slightly later works such as Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady. While James is interested in exploring cultural and moral divisions between the Old World and the New, he also intended the novel as a partial defense of the American mode of life, being inspired to produce a rebuttal to a play by Alexandre Dumas called "L'Etrangere," which gave a negative depiction of Americans.
James would revise The American at regular intervals. The most significant revisions took place in 1907 when James was preparing the twenty-six-volume "New York Edition" of his major works. The version he included as volume 2 of this series is a markedly different text from the 1877 edition. Most modern editions of the novel have chosen to reprint the earlier version, although it is illuminating to compare the two versions of the novel.
The American is also notable for fostering one of the few examples of theatrical success in James's career. He adapted the novel into a play in the early 1890s, during a period when he was committed to developing a career as a playwright. In order to do so, he made major changes to the plot of the novel, including inserting a happy ending. These efforts did result in a moderately successful run for the theatrical production, which toured for several years.